Authorize State Department programs so we can truly lead with diplomacy
Year after year, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is the focal point of legislative calendars. The bill, which grants authorities for a wide array of projects for the Defense Department, has been passed 62 years in a row and allows legislators to invest money in their districts’ military installations, update our hard-power capabilities, and project our military might in the name of great-power competition.
Foggy Bottom does not enjoy the luxury of regular congressional authorization and prioritization that the Pentagon receives. Instead, the State Department and our diplomats languish amid irregular authorization and near-flat funding year after year — it’s no wonder some on Capitol Hill lost sight of the role of American diplomats in ensuring our national security. This disparity in congressional action between the Department of Defense and the Department of State comes at a very real cost to our national security.
Before last year, Congress had not authorized State Department programs in nearly 20 years — compare that to the NDAA’s 62-year run. This period saw a rapidly evolving geopolitical landscape: U.S. troops invaded and withdrew from Iraq and Afghanistan, China rose to become a global superpower, COVID-19 upended daily life, and democracies retreated around the world. Through all this change, Foggy Bottom operated under the same authorities granted to it when Saddam Hussein was still in power in Iraq, the euro had just begun circulation, and Netflix was still a mail-order DVD service.
When two decades pass between authorizations, the State Department is not able to nimbly adapt to the shifting geopolitical terrain. The execution of our foreign policy suffers as a result. The lack of annual prioritization of State Department authorization should be seen for what it is: a national security weakness that calls for immediate congressional action.
Thankfully, Congress stepped up to pass a State Department authorization bill last year. While this made important progress in modernizing the State Department and reorienting our primary foreign policymaking body, many key provisions the State Department had asked for were left on the cutting room floor.
This was an important first step. But if we wait another 20 years — or even another two years — to pass another State Department authorization bill, we will be undermining American diplomacy at one of the worst possible moments. Congress can reassume its important role in foreign policy by focusing on the fundamentals: annually granting the necessary authorities to the State Department.
Last month, over 100 of our colleagues signed onto a letter that asked leadership in both chambers to swiftly pass the State Department authorization language that was included in the Senate version of the NDAA. This effort was spearheaded by not just senior former diplomats, but also many former military leaders and other national security officials. They, like us, appreciate the importance of a strong and nimble State Department that is poised to swiftly and effectively confront international challenges. Diplomats and warfighters agree: Leading with diplomacy is the most prudent approach to foreign policy.
While last year’s authorization bill was a crucial first step in reasserting Congress’s foreign policy role, the State Department Authorization Act of 2022 is perhaps even more important to the long-term efficacy of the State Department. By passing a State Department authorization bill this year, and in the years that follow, we can build the muscle memory that turns State authorization into something that is annually prioritized by Congress — and, in turn, ensure that diplomacy once again is our foreign policy tool of first resort.
Amb. (Ret.) Laura Kennedy is a foreign affairs expert who served for nearly 40 years with the U.S. Foreign Service. Follow her on Twitter @AmbKennedy_ret.
A career diplomat, Amb. (ret.) Robert S. Gelbard entered the Foreign Service in 1967 after serving in Bolivia as a member of the Peace Corps. His career in the State Department spans more than four decades. He is now a senior adviser at Kreab, a global communications consulting firm.
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